By Gillian Marcelle, Associate Professor, Wits Business School
The invitation to write this blog on what would happen or have been different if Steve Jobs had been a woman proved to be too enticing to turn down. This despite the fact that I had left off my serious work on gender and ICTs for nearly a decade. Different themes emerged as I played with the idea of gender transformation and Steve Jobs. I am not sure whether I can cover all these themes here and so perhaps this invitation will lead to future work on the subject.
From the point of view of development studies, I would argue that we need more people like Steve Jobs, and it really does not matter if they are male or female, except if there are biases, whether structural, institutional or psychosocial that stand in the way of the emergence of female Jobs like figures. The point is that Steve Jobs stands at one level as a standard bearer for successful entrepreneurship and transformation and he has become the touchstone for success.
«A woman with a similar balance of negative and positive personality traits was very unlikely to have succeeded in formal business settings»
This then leads to my take on Jobs from a management science perspective. Steve Jobs’s approach to steering a company and its innovative process includes: single-minded dedication to “specification”, ruthlessness, setting standards very high and not compromising about how these were achieved, being unaccepting of industry standards and setting out to be disruptive. He is characterised by enormous self belief, arrogance and a spectacular willingness to take risks. Steve on all accounts is legendary for is attention to detail, keen observational skills and an ability to improve new possibility outside what currently exists. This latter feature has been hailed as him having a reality-distorting ability and this applied to the product features and design of Apple products and services.
From all accounts these “positive” qualities and characteristics were wrapped up in personal attitude that made Steve Jobs an exceptionally challenging human being, in both his personal and professional lives. It is his personality and human characteristics that have meant that he is revered and loathed with great intensity. Before his death, the negative and challenging aspects of his personality were spoken of in hushed whispers. Jobs the mythical path breaker occupied much more airtime than the man who insisted on a paternity test for his first child, refused to reconcile with his biological father, and regularly reduced managers and employees meeting with him at Apple to tears and even attempted suicide. Since his death, the accounts and reports have become more revealing and dare I say insightful. There have been many analyses attempting to reconcile the positive and negative aspects of his personality and to understand the implications for practice.
This is where the gender issues are stark. My sense is that a woman with a similar balance of negative and positive personality traits was very unlikely to have succeeded in formal business settings, let alone to have been celebrated and venerated as a management icon. She would be more likely to have been burnt at the stake! Reality-distorting women who buck traditions, set their own standards and insist on dragging followers on the path they have set out for them and have that confidence of conviction more on grounds of personal self belief and branding that norms and moral standards.
«Is society reproducing female and male Steve Jobs clones rather than developing alternatives?»
I don’t know whether we will even be able to test the hypothesis that a female Steve Jobs would not have been allowed to survive as against the counter hypothesis that a female leader in the ICT sector world is unlikely to have the same balance of “offensive” and positive personality traits. I certainly cannot think of a female powerful figure who is associated with single handedly setting new benchmarks for an industry, hero worshipped and venerated. These are some reflections on Steve the man.
As far as the products produced by Steve Jobs and Apple, I wonder about whether a woman of a similar age, cultural, racial and political background would have produced a set of technologies that had the same characteristics.
Industry domination, lock-in effects, propriety standards are central to the Apple success story. This is a technological leader model per excellence. If we are to separate out particular personality traits, we still have to ask the question whether the propensity to adopt strategies with these features is gendered. Do female leaders eschew strategies with these characteristics and do they have a high propensity to adopt alternatives? We don’t have any evidence to answer this question. Are female leaders, whether they pursue paths of business diversification and growth that differ from that pursued by Apple likely to be as successful? This would also need to be answered in the future. In considering these issues, it may be helpful to ask whether female executives operating in these settings actually have definitions of success and power that are fundamentally different from their male counterparts. Do put this differently, would a white, educated, middle class female in a wealthy country have either the option or desire to manage success and power in a way that differed significantly from Steve Jobs. Do we have processes of selection in place that effectively means that a female computer science or business student hoping to catch the eye of a mentor or to climb the ladder of success is more likely to perform management in a Steve Jobs like fashion than not. Is society then reproducing female and male Steve Jobs clones rather than developing alternatives? The recent opting-out and missing generation debates in the US suggest that these issues and questions are not that farfetched.
I want to also make some comments relating to design and functionality. If a Steve Jobs like character in female form were to emerge and survive would she make design and be successful by products that sought to have seamless integration across data from personal/private and professional aspects of life. Personally, I find the aspect of the Apple i-range of products quite irritating and somewhat disturbing. While I love the convenience of the i-Pad and the i-Phone for network connectivity, posh email features, I resist quite strongly the possibility and practice of blending/merging any aspect of life in one device. I am not certain that this is inherently female, especially since we are supposed to be so much better off multitasking than men but I do not regard that blurring of boundaries as healthy and/or desirable.
«Steve as icon not only sets the standard but has probably set back feminist advocacy in this field for many decades to come»
Finally, I want to tackle the politics of the situation. In my work as a gender equality advocate with a focus on the ICT sector, I argued that unless a critical political analysis was made of the integration of social, political, institutional and structural processes that led to patterns of gender inequality, the situation would continue. The advocacy positions of the groups with which I was associated called for concerted efforts within the ICT sector and in the policy space to end exclusion and inequitable access to and control of ICT systems and industries on a gendered basis.
Several years on, although I am not as familiar with the academic, policy or civil society work in this area, I certainly have the impression that there has been no major breakthrough in terms of wrestling into these issues and making transformational changes.
And in that sense, Steve Jobs’s success at Pixar and Apple, his wealth creation, his bad behaviour, and hyper-masculinity means that he is the robber baronesque figure of the 21st century. Steve as icon not only sets the standard but has probably set back feminist advocacy in this field for many decades to come. By contrast, Bill Gates is a mild-mannered, happily married, philanthropy inclined, not particularly macho man, who is very wealthy. But he has not attracted the same love-hate reaction (except in Open Source circles).
If there was a level playing field and the world had really become a fundamentally different place, perhaps a warm-hearted, fuzzy, female leader with a heart of gold and on her best behaviour would have emerged to lead a firm that was concerned about triple bottom line issues, making useful ICT product and services in collaboration with users and competitors that addressed human needs as well as advanced private motives.
Until then we have Steve...